“We attack, you defend. That’s balance.”

defendI have never gone to an Evangelical Protestant website or message board to attack Evangelicalism or Evangelicals.

Quite the contrary:  I’ve published a number of newspaper columns and other pieces in which I’ve praised this or that Evangelical, or this or that element of Evangelical history.  I’ve approvingly cited more Evangelical scholars than I can remember.

I’ve never sought out a Catholic message board or website to attack Catholics or Catholicism.

To the contrary, I’ve published a number of newspaper columns and other pieces in which I’ve praised this or that Catholic or Catholic thinker, or sought sympathetically to explain some aspect of Catholic intellectual history.  I’ve approvingly cited more Catholic scholars than I can remember.  My youngest son was partially named after one of the greatest of Catholic thinkers.

I’ve never shown up on an atheist or agnostic site to attack atheism, or atheists, agnosticism, or agnostics.

I’m on record as strongly disagreeing with the rejection of belief in God, but I’ve tried to take atheist and agnostic arguments seriously, and I know, and freely admit, that some of them merit being taken seriously.

I’ve never posted attacks on ex-Mormons, though I’ve responded to innumerable attacks on my faith by apostate Mormons, as well as by atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and Evangelicals.

I’ve made serious efforts to take arguments against my faith with complete seriousness.  Some of them deserve such treatment.  And the damaged faith of those who are suffering certainly merits compassion and honesty.

I’ve gone on record more than once to declare my strong sympathy for a form of at least near-universalism.  I’m really fond of the answer of Pope John Paul II, when he was asked whether a Christian must believe in Hell:  ”Yes,” he said.  ”But we can hope that it will be empty.”

For years, though, I’ve marveled at the ease and endurance with which a carefully-crafted portrayal of me has settled in as incontrovertible dogma in certain circles.  According to this narrative, I’m a callous and mean-spirited fellow, perpetually angry, rigidly black and white in my views, far more concerned with theory than with actual people, eager for the excommunication of heretics, salivating at the prospect of their damnation, and, in select variants, motivated by some sort of obscure but undying quest for vengeance (for something or other, such as supposed humiliations on my mission, or social awkwardness and lack of friends, or a consciousness of my manifest and manifold inferiority).

People who actually know me, I’m reasonably confident, must scratch their heads when they encounter such depictions.  (More than a few have told me so.)  And this fact has reached a few of the purveyors of the narrative.  It seems, I admit, to have left the faith that a substantial number of them have in the narrative of my depravity entirely unaffected.  Some, though, faced with a classic case of cognitive dissonance, have felt a need to adjust their story.  These people have decided to combine the new data with their original view.  I must therefore, in their revised account, represent a Dr Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde phenomenon.  Apparently a half-way decent bloke in real life, I turn into an unprincipled monster when seated in front of a computer screen.

The trouble with this narrative is that there’s simply little or no data to support it.  I’m just not the vicious wretch that I’m claimed to be.  Neither online nor in real life.  Several critics, over the past several years, have publicly vowed that they would gather up the evidence to demonstrate my cruel viciousness once and for all.  But they’ve never managed to come up with much.  Even when (as has happened in virtually every case, if not every single one) they’ve sent out a call for help in tracking down illustrations of the horrors I’ve committed, the results have been unimpressive at best.  Especially when read in context, and especially when contrasted with the genuinely horrible mean-spiritedness that is the daily fare on the message and comment boards across the Internet — and, very specifically, in the places where these people participate .  Often, in fact, the most insulting, cruel, and vicious behavior is that of my very accusers themselves.  And, not seldom, it’s aimed directly at me.

Anyway, that’s a long and self-centered introduction to a fascinating essay that I’ve just read.  In it, Bruce Nielson, who has obviously had considerable relevant experience, sets forth his reasons for regarding much of the “conversation” between believing Latter-day Saints, on the one hand, and ex-Mormons and unbelieving nominal Mormons, on the other, as fundamentally unbalanced, unfair, even disingenuous.  How does this relate to the personal demonization to which I’ve been subjected?  (To what a few, following the script, have chose to call my “persecution complex”?)  The imbalance helps to explain why attacking Mormon belief is honest and good and kind, while defending it is dishonest and bad and mean.  It helps to account for the fact that truly awful behavior is regarded as wounded former believers acting out their pain as a form of self-therapy, while a disinclination to see one’s most sacred beliefs assaulted and to allow oneself to be publicly and unjustly flogged is flatly wicked and immoral.  It also says a lot, along the way, about the weird phenomenon of John Dehlin and his fellow-travelers.

 Posted from Park City, Utah.

Daniel Peterson edits BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History.” Their opinions are their own.